Wednesday, February 14, 2018

An update to the Padmaavat post (after seeing the film)

When I wrote the original Padmaavat-related post, I hadn’t seen the film, and was called out for this during a longish Facebook discussion – the point I tried to make there was that I was putting down generalized thoughts about a certain form of criticism/reading, and that watching this specific film was not imperative to that end.

Well, I saw Bhansali’s film yesterday and liked it much more than I had expected to. One reason I had been putting off seeing it was that I don’t usually have the stamina these days for a nearly-three-hour movie-hall experience. Another was that SLB’s last, Bajirao Mastani, had left me largely bored and distracted. But this was a very different experience. While Padmaavat was patchy in places (I don’t know enough yet about what was censored or otherwise edited out) and began on a less-than-promising note with a computer-generated ostrich and a seemingly mummified Raza Murad, I was eventually drawn into its world, and thought the final 20-25 minutes ranked among the best work this much-maligned auteur has done.

This includes the things that come just before the Jauhar sequence: the brilliant Mirch Masala-like scene of the women hurling coal at Khilji, engaging in one of the last forms of violent resistance left to them; and before that, the Ratan Singh-Khilji swordfight. Wonderfully shot, performed and choreographed (Sham Kaushal’s work as stunt director merits that word), this scene combines some of the epic grandeur of similar scenes in non-Indian films like Troy with a quality that evoked war depiction in dance forms like kathakali. (The actors here are very much in character – Khilji a rude, swaggering force of nature, Ratan Singh prim and courtly in his movements – the way you don’t often expect actors to be in fight sequences. I was also reminded of some of the stylised action sequences from old Japanese films performed in the Noh tradition.)

Anyway: having watched the film, I now find it even harder to relate to Bhaskar’s article (which I was earlier looking at in abstract terms). Especially since the film did have a couple of scenes that made clear nods to contemporary gender-related discourse – such as the one where Padmaavati, addressing a woman who has accused her of bringing calamity on the kingdom, says words to the effect “You blame ME for drawing his attention, instead of blaming HIM for directing his unwanted attention at me?” Costume, setting and formal speech aside, this scene could easily have been from a socially conscious 2018 film about the victim-blaming culture. In any case, it made nonsense of my earlier thought-exercise about the possible inclusion of a supporting character who would provide an alternate, “progressive” perspective. This film didn’t need any such character.

Inevitably, some of the criticisms of my post have gone the route of “but you’re a man, you don’t have the right lenses to understand the problems with the film”. It is of course true that we all have lenses that derive from our life experiences, from our privilege and lack of privilege (which are things that are very complex and intersect and play off each other in dozens of ways – someone who is deeply privileged in one sense can be deeply unprivileged in another sense, and even within the same situation). But this is a very patronizing way of dismissing both my experience and the experiences of the women who share my views about this subject in general, and about this film in particular. The person I saw Padmaavat with (sensitive, intelligent and someone who has, like most women, experienced forms of sexual harassment or discrimination herself and even written about them) was even more moved by the film and its climax than I was. And she didn’t see any “glorification” or “misogyny” in that final passage.

It’s unfortunate that I even feel the need to say something so defensive-sounding or so obvious
— but that’s what some of the discourse around reactions to Padmaavat (and ideology-blinkered criticism more generally) has come down to. And again, I’m not saying this to weigh the argument in my favour or to suggest that my view of the film is the “right” one or the “only possible reading” — just to reiterate that this isn’t anywhere near as simple as Men Feel This, Women Feel That.

[And now I should get back to the much less respectful piece I was writing, about the decapitated-but-still-fighting Rajput soldier as a version of the heroic male praying mantis, who continues servicing his woman after she has ripped off his head mid-coitus and eaten it]


  1. I have not seen Padmaavat and clearly a lot of the conversation seems to revolve around the Swara Bhaskar piece in this #MeToo moment. However, a lot of friends and family who have seen it felt very uncomfortable with the portrayal of the Muslim characters and seemed quite certain the choices made were islamophobic. Let me say at the outset that I defend SLB's right to make that choice but within the realm of criticism, would it be considered fair to point that out? I got a similar feeling just watching the trailer that familiar tropes were resorted to in the portrayal of Khilji and from what I can tell, historically inaccurate portrayals. Without holding an ideological position, would it be considered too much to point out that these particular (easy) choices were made with regard to depicting a character, to exploit popularly held views about said religious group (ethnic group etc)? Again I am asking only to understand your approach to the craft. I admire your approach quite a bit.

  2. within the realm of criticism, would it be considered fair to point that out?

    Zog: yes, of course it would be fair to point that out, if that’s what one genuinely feels - though it should be backed (if this is an analytical piece we are talking about, as opposed to a short Facebook rant) by reasoning for why one feels that way.

    Equally, it should be possible to dissent from that view. Part of the reason for my current defensiveness is that I increasingly get the impression (in the circles I move/write in) that popular cinema is only being assessed (and condemned) along the lines that it is misogynistic/racist/casteist/Islamophobic etc.

  3. It could be the cultural moment we are living that quite a few people feel exhausted with how nothing changes and turn to the media we consume for easy scapegoats.
    However, that being said, having grown up with a certain kind of masala Malayalam cop movie which provided a sort of catharsis in the easiness of its melodrama and common tropes, I was a bit upset (being a woman) with the decidedly violently misogynistic dialogues in some of the recent releases in this genre. It could be argued that audience and critical tolerance of earlier dialogue paved the way for the current films. I agree that there is a certain bent to a lot of the art and film criticism these days but I just wonder when most films are made in a culture that holds a lot of these attitudes (obviously the films will reflect that more or less), when is it appropriate and when is it just an exercise in preaching to the crowd/navel gazing.

  4. Do you have some Rajasthani Rajputs in your class?
    This is a guess from reading the previous post and this one

  5. All of them! With huge moustaches. (Except for the two male students, who only had two-day stubbles.)

  6. A psychologist's perspective:

  7. i thought the movie is a good one time watch. Really these days, we have to hyperventilate and fuss about everything and see confirmation biases all along.
    And to think this movie offended rajputs in certain sections while some feel it is islamophobic...the best way is to not watch right ?or watch and like or not like? i mean watch and rant about what the director should do or not do is stretching it a bit..